Roberta Price's Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture
According to the Associated Press, approximately 3,000 active communes once dotted the United States. At one time, as many as three million people were involved in these diverse social experiments that sought to branch off in some significant, sustainable way from the destructive, militant, consumer-driven culture of mainstream America.
Back in the late '60s, Roberta Price got a grant to photograph life in these alternative communities. Eventually, one of these anarchic experiments lured Price and her former husband, David, away from their academic careers at SUNY at Buffalo. She spent six and a half years at a commune called Libre in southern Colorado's Huerfano Valley.
Price is currently an intellectual property attorney based in Albuquerque, but she still looks back on that way of life with unabashed fondness and nostalgia. She's compiled her photographs and memories into a fascinating new book called Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture (University of Massachusetts Press, hardcover, $29.95). Her account of communal living provides a sympathetic, thoughtful assessment of an alternative movement that wasn't nearly as absurd as its many detractors have made it sound.
The following is an excerpt from Huerfano that offers a moving glimpse into an era characterized by both extreme cultural upheaval and courageous social experimentation. In it, Price and her husband return home to New York after only a few months at the commune because David has an appointment for a mandatory draft physical.
An excerpt from Chapter 19: The Physical January 11, 1971
In mid-December we pointed the Chrysler east and retraced last June's journey across the plains. Most immigrants or pioneers don't get to return to their points of origin so easily. We came back for Christmas with my family and David's draft physical. When we left Buffalo and David lost his graduate school deferment, he wangled two three-month postponements. But then the letter came, denying further extensions and setting the date and place of the physical, in downtown New York City at Whitehall today. We've kept a New York address in case things go badly—we don't want them to know where we are.
After spending Christmas with my family, we came to the city a few days ago. We're staying with my friend Pam's older brother Ed, his wife, and baby. Ed wakes us up at 5:30 before he runs in the park, and I get out the bag of beauty aids I bought at Woolworth's on Lexington Avenue.
First I use the jagged-tooth comb to rat David's dark, shoulder-length hair so it stands out at all angles, and then I apply hair spray to give it volume and keep the lift. I put on foundation quite a bit paler than his natural skin tone, using my fingertips to work it in. After that, I line his eyes subtly with sable eyeliner. He stares out the bathroom window at Park Avenue before dawn, like an actor getting ready for his big scene. I stay quiet, except for terse requests like "Chin up!" or "Please, don't blink." It's hard to curl his eyelashes. I've never used much makeup, so I'm not the best to begin with. I'm out of practice, too—it's not like I put on Cover Girl to chop wood and haul water. When I brush the powder on his lids before applying black Maybelline mascara, he grimaces in distaste.
I'm going for the Charles Manson look. Manson's trial for murder in California has been front-page national news, and his crazed face appears regularly on the television evening news. I use some white to highlight the area under David's brows and use a paler than natural lip color, kind of a Julie Christie look. Nothing too obvious—no blush, nothing to diminish the pallor from the foundation. He's sitting on the toilet seat, and I back up to the edge of the tub across the bathroom and squint at him. He looks sexually ambivalent, demented, and I'm quite pleased with my handiwork. He wears jeans, ordinary cowboy boots, and a nondescript yellow shirt. Dressing like a hippie wouldn't help. The draft board has seen everything by now, and we wouldn't get anywhere if they typed him as a peacenik hippie. Many peacenik hippies are now reluctant soldiers in Vietnam, shooting first before they're shot. A bisexual psychopath with delusions of grandeur is more likely to get their attention.
I don't know what he plans to do at the physical. He hasn't talked much about it. During the last twenty-four hours he's gotten quieter and quieter. Ed and his wife were sympathetic and understanding last night at dinner, even though Ed's in the Marine Reserves. They and I carried on a pleasant enough conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Vassar and Yale, my family and theirs, while David ate quietly and stared at his plate.
Jack Kerouac was dismissed from the navy on psychological grounds in 1948. I don't know all the details. More recently, Joe, a friend from Yale got out of the draft by meditating and getting his blood pressure down below the minimum. Danny smoked cigarettes and drank so much coffee in the twenty-four hours before his physical that his blood pressure twitched above the maximum. Tom, who's six feet tall, fasted, lost fifty pounds, and got his weight down below the minimum for his height, one hundred and thirty four, for two different physicals. The second time, they said, "You're not going to go, are you?" Archer got FUCK YOU tattooed on the side of his right hand, the part that faces out when he salutes, and they didn't want him, though after that another guy got his hand tattooed the same way and was drafted. A guy from Harvard acted crazy and got himself chased into the bathroom, where he secretly slipped two unwrapped Baby Ruths into the toilet bowl. When they caught up with him and tried to restrain him, he scooped up the candy bars, which were sitting in the toilet like turds, and ate them. I've heard that some men drink egg whites, hoping they'll increase the albumin level in their urine and get classified 4-F for diabetes. Todd didn't go to his physical, and he's somewhere in the Sierras in Northern California the last we heard. Brian didn't go to his either. He's probably in Mexico. A friend from Columbia took three tabs of White Lightning the morning of his physical. He hallucinated and yelled gibberish throughout his processing, but he got inducted anyway. A friend of a friend at Buffalo shot off his big toe the night before his physical, like a wolf that gnaws off his paw to get out of a trap.
I hug David at the door of the apartment, a parody of an Upper East Side wife kissing her banker husband as he leaves for work. "Good luck," I say. "I love you."
"Yeah," he says, as the elevator door closes. He's got a few things to say about the new women's movement, sexual equality, and the fact that women aren't drafted and don't have to go through this. I know him so well, and we've talked about this so often, that I know what he's thinking, and my imagination works overtime. I close the door quietly, but I see him walking down to Lexington Avenue and Eighty-sixth to get the IRT express downtown, wearing his grandfather's old tweed overcoat, thinking of his grandfather, who died at fifty-nine from the mustard gas and shrapnel from World War I. Thinking of his father, zigzagging safely through Japanese antiaircraft fire in World War II night after night, then dying two decades later in a corporate jet, safe in home territory, before he and David could finish their argument about Vietnam. Thinking of watching Hugh burn his draft card in the bonfire on the Yale quad, and losing Hugh to Canada. Thinking of losing Harton to the war. Harton, back from Vietnam and visiting in Buffalo, staying up late with David, smoking sticky black opium brought back from 'Nam in a regulation duffel. Dry-eyed, telling stories David wouldn't repeat to me.
As David heads downtown, I bet most of the other men in the early morning commute are brokers, bankers, and lawyers traveling to work in their pin-striped suits and London Fogs, peering over their Wall Street Journals at the tall, lean, dark-eyed man who's their contemporary, standing in the corner of the subway car. I bet he's not reading a paper, his hands are in the pockets of the vintage overcoat, and he's staring angrily back at them. He'll get out at Bowling Green and walk the block to Whitehall, hands still in his pockets, looking straight ahead. No one will meet his gaze.
At the apartment I put the makeup and hair spray back in the Woolworth bag and stuff it in the trash can in the kitchen. I have breakfast with Ed and his wife and baby before they leave for the day. I stack the breakfast dishes in the sink, go back to bed, and pull the covers over my head, then give up trying to sleep around ten. I dress and walk out in the pale gray that passes for morning light here. I walk without thinking to the Met and head for Arms and Armor and stare at the helmets, chain mail, heraldic þags, the swords, knives, lances. I examine the maces and spiked metal balls chained to a wooden handle, lethal lariats you swing over your head before sticking it to the enemy. There are saddles and armor for the horses, and drawings of winches and cranes used to lower the armored knights onto their mounts. There are paintings of the Crusades in the Holy Land, in which the medieval equivalents of gooks lie on the battlefields in the swath cut by the Christians.
I don't realize I'm crying until the line of third-graders pushing around me stop and stare, so I head south through the entrance hall to the corridors where I can sit and look at the cool marble bodies of the Roman boys. Then I leave and walk down Fifth Avenue, watching people pushing their baby strollers, lugging their shopping bags, walking their dogs, chatting and laughing with companions, hailing cabs. They rush down the sidewalks to shop, work, lunch, all of them on their errands without a care for the war across the world from them, the burning villages, the body bags.
I walk up across the park and back again, sniffing the marijuana smoke on the east side of Bethesda Fountain. New York City is where I came of age, where Pam and I would go down to Café Figaro when we were sixteen, dressed in black turtlenecks and ironed jeans, looking for Allen Ginsberg and other middle-aged beatniks or the young Bob Dylan. But it doesn't feel like home anymore, and when I close my eyes, I see the blinding winter whiteness of the Sangre de Cristo Range. I walk up Madison Avenue, where the women striding down the sidewalk think they're Someone, then back to the apartment, where I sit in the living room in the dark afternoon with my feet up and the lights off. If he doesn't get out, would we be safe in the Rockies, or should we go to Canada? If we left Libre, we'd be leaving not just our future in America but our vision for America's future. Am I ready? I'd be able to go back and forth across the border without him, but how could I? What would it be like to have family, friends, home over a border he can't cross?
When he comes in, he looks at me sadly. I can't tell what happened, so I say, "Tell me, for God's sake!"
He says quietly, "I'm not going." I'm happy and hug him, but he says, "There's nothing to celebrate." He's spent the day with young men not privileged, selfish, scared, angry, or clever enough to try to get out of being sent to Vietnam. I rest my forehead against his. In the kitchen I make tea, and he smokes cigarette after cigarette nervously, describing scenes out of Kafka, the line of youths humbled and holding their clothes. How when some of the answers on his questionnaire, such as that he was a lifelong bed wetter, caught someone's attention, he was taken to a room to discuss his answers and his attitude. He counted to ten before answering any question the captain asked, to suggest that maybe he wasn't a good candidate for following orders promptly, but he was getting nowhere until he played his last card.
"What makes you think you're unsuitable for Vietnam?" sneered the captain, looking across his desk at David in his underwear.
"I think I'd have a tendency to shoot my officers in the back, sir," David said. Harton had told David stories he'd heard that hadn't made it to the evening news. It was the look in David's eyes that did the trick. For generations, his kin and the Feds were enemies. His eyes had the look of the eastern Cherokees who outsmarted the army, avoiding capture and the Trail of Tears. He had the stare of mountain men with nothing left to lose, two steps ahead of the T-men, careening down mountain roads in North Carolina with shotguns under the seat, headlights off, jugs in the back of the truck sloshing moonshine. On top of that, there was his crazed visionary poet look, one of his eyes gazing slightly beyond the captain at the future, or something behind the officer's back.
For years the draft and Vietnam have hung over us, changing our futures and choices in a sickening government-sponsored roulette game that caused persistent apprehension. Now it's over, but we can't feel happy. Lying in bed at night, listening to the traffic, when he puts his face against my shoulder, his lashes are wet. This relief diminishes a proud man and is a bitter, shameful thing to feel.
Roberta Price will discuss and sign Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture at Page One on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. 11018 Montgomery NE, 294-2026.
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